We have developed an in vitro model in which isolated senile plaque (SP) cores are presented to rat microglial cells in culture. Microglia rapidly phagocytosed, broke apart, and cleared SP cores. However, when cocultured with astrocytes, microglial phagocytosis was markedly suppressed, allowing the SPs to persist. Suppression of phagocytosis by astrocytes appears to be a general phenomena since microglia in the presence of astrocytes showed reduced capacity to phagocytose latex beads as well. The astrocyte effect on microglia is related in part to a diffusible factor(s) since astrocyte- but not fibroblast-conditioned media also reduced phagocytosis. These results suggest that while microglia have the capacity to phagocytose and remove SPs, astrocytes which lie in close association to microglia may help prevent the efficient clearance of SP material allowing them to persist in Alzheimer's disease.